Assessing the Effectiveness of a Basic Writing Course

Assessing the Effectiveness of a Basic Writing Course

Barika Barboza (City University of New York, USA) and Frances Singh (City University of New York, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-667-9.ch015
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This chapter describes an outcomes assessment study completed in a basic composition course at a small urban open admissions community college. The course was a pilot course designed in response to marginally remedial performance on a standardized writing instrument and solidly exempted performance on the standardized reading instrument. This chapter takes its readers from process to product, exploring both the collaboration between administration and faculty as well as the steps involved in assessing student learning. Specifically discussed is how data was used to guide decision making about curricular change on our campus. At different moments, this assessment study highlights a success story, red flags areas of weakness and suggests future courses of action and research.
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In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education reported that over 40% of first-year students at public two-year colleges place into remedial courses. At Hostos Community College/CUNY, that percentage is even higher because it draws its student body from one of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation and serves students who have historically had limited access to higher education. Data collected by the Office of Institutional Research indicates that about 90% of its student body requires remediation in one of the following areas: writing, reading, math. To meet this remediation crisis, Hostos has offered courses in remedial writing, reading, and math since its founding 40 years ago. Particularly since 1999, when CUNY mandated an institution-wide policy that charged its two-year campuses with the task of offering remedial coursework for underprepared students, Hostos has offered even more sections and a variety of organized interventions to supplement them.1

While the expansion of remedial courses can be looked at negatively, to indicate how many students are educationally underprepared for college-level work, these same courses can also be seen positively, as a heroic effort by community colleges to rise to the challenge of making the educational system finally work for this population. However, developing courses is not in itself a sufficient response to the problem. Consider the following example from Act III of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I.

Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur. Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them? (p. 1222)

As the lines makes clear, Hotspur deflates Glendower’s boast that he can conjure spirits by remarking that anyone can conjure spirits. The real sign of success, Hotspur argues, is in the effectiveness of the conjuring—whether or not the spirits come when they are called. By the same token, until and unless the effectiveness of the courses has been determined through assessment, their worth, like Glendower’s ability to call spirits, is debatable.



In response to Glendower’s boast, Hotspur asked him, “But will they [the spirits] come when you do call for them?” To assess the effectiveness of a remedial course, it is also necessary to ask questions, the two most important being the following.

  • 1.

    Do remedial courses give students the academic skills necessary to perform satisfactorily in college-level courses?

  • 2.

    Do students who take remedial courses persist?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Accountability: Accountability is the commitment of a program or organization to be forthcoming with the way that it is meeting its outlined goals.

Note: Many of these definitions are derived from those found in the online Dictionary of Student Outcome Assessment put out by James Madison University [].

Placement Exams: Placement exams refer to the screening instruments used to determine if students’ qualifications for entering a program or course are at an appropriate level to begin their studies. These instruments are generally administered to students as part of the freshman registration process.

Basic Writer: The Basic Writer is a student whose writing manifests problems in organization, development and expressiveness; his/her problems are traditionally addressed in a one-semester developmental writing course preceding Freshman Composition.

Outcomes Assessment: Outcomes Assessment is the process of systematically collecting, describing or quantifying information about student performance related to learning outcomes at the course, program and institutional level.

Marginally Remedial, Solidly Exempted: These terms frame a subset of the Basic Writer population. This cohort failed the Writing assessment test by one point; however, they passed the Reading assessment test by ten or more points. Thus, they straddle the boundary between remedial and college-level courses.

Remedial Student: A remedial student is a student who does not meet criteria that would allow h/her to enter into college level classes.

Effectiveness: Effectiveness refers to desirable change in performance, be it student or institutional performance. It is measured through the data gathered by the instruments used to collect information on student learning and development.

Attrition: Attrition refers to the loss of students through means other than graduation.

Feedback Loop: According to Wehlberg, “the feedback loop is the process by which outcomes are developed, measures are identified, data is collected, and then that data is used to inform the process, and it begins again with another look at the outcomes” (p. 10).

Freshman Composition: In Freshman Composition, students read and respond to texts representing various rhetorical modes so as to improve their writing, revising and editing skills.

Pilot Course: A pilot course is an experimental course that modifies an existing course. The modifications usually involve changes in the existing course’s curriculum and/or format or mode of delivery. A pilot course can be offered for several semesters after which it is either dropped or instated as a formal course offering of the institution.

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